Whatever happened to Ralph Galván?
Ralph Galván Jr. is among the few remaining band leaders of the many orchestras that thrived in Corpus Christi during the 1940s, ‘50s, through the 60s and into the ‘70s.
With the exception of Óscar Martínez from the Sparkling City by the Sea, Óscar Ramos, Juan Colorado, Balde Gonzalez, Johnny Herrera, Isidro López, Beto Vásquez; and Ralph’s brothers Sammy and Eddie Galván all passed on.
The Galván family’s musical dynasty began in the early 1930s when Rafael Galván Sr. hired music teacher Bernabe Alvarado, to pick up his children at George Evans Elementary School, walk them home and give them three hours of music lessons which started with the music diction method of solfeo in which one sings the music notes.
“There were so many of us little ones that my father worried we kids would get into trouble and that music would keep us at bay and safe at home,” Ralph Galván said during an interview arranged by his daughter Edythe “Vicki” Virginia Hoeltzel and conducted at the Trisun Care Center in San Antonio.
As this writer walked up to greet the living-legend, the first thing one noted is that he looked so sprite and handsome. And as he reminisced, his mind was sharp as a tack as he recalled exact times, dates and names, even spelling them out.
The insight he provided on his father, Ralph Sr., is that he was a bail bondsman, owned a lot of properties, was the impresario of the Galván Ballroom, owned a late-model car, that they lived in a two-story house and that he was a stern, strict, but protective, caring father. He was not a musician. However, his mother Virginia did play piano.
“The result of our classical music lessons is that I played violin and the rest of my siblings played violin, viola, cellos, banjo, piano or guitar. So it was only natural that we called ourselves Los Hermanos Galván – Ralph, Sammy, Eddie, Bobby, Patti, Mamie and Virginia — began to perform at all the civic clubs. Their two oldest sisters, Beatrice and Rosa, who had beautiful voices, were the featured singers.
“When I entered Corpus Christi High School (CCHS), now Roy Miller High, I played violin with the orchestra, which was mostly strings, but I was mesmerized with the brass in the band, so I borrowed a friend’s trumpet and learned the scales. When I felt I was ready, I asked to be allowed to join the band,” the 88-year-young legend said.
With all odds stacked against him, he had to challenge and beat a trumpet player for a spot in the band. Galván succeeded and became the ‘first Hispanic in the CCHS Band.’
“I perceived they just didn’t want any Hispanics in the band and that motivated me to practice more, but I had an edge in that I knew how to solfiar (sing the notes). Eventually I worked my way up to ‘first chair’ and paved the way for my brothers.”
By the time, he reached ‘first chair,’ Galván, by playing along with jazz tunes on the radio, was already playing jazz. He was so good that his instructor featured him to do a solo during a school football game half-time and Galván wowed the crowd with his rendition of Harry James’ “Ciribiribin.”
After he graduated from CCHS in 1941, he continued to perform with his sibling until he was drafted in early 1942. As fate would have it, the band leader at the Army induction center in Fort Sam Houston, Texas happened to be one of the early creators of the boogie woogie. Galván wound up earning a spot in the U.S. Army Band.
“My father had to put my trumpet on bus in order for me to try out and I think this is the time, he finally accepted my choice of instrument.
“I was also stationed with Jack Teagarden’s son. Then I got shipped to Germany and Austria as a member of the 42nd Infantry Division Rainbow Unit under Maj. General “Hollywood” Harry J. Collins.”
Galván became a War II hero when the unit captured Donauwörth on the Danube on April 25, 1945. Four days later, the division, along with the 45th Infantry Division liberated circa 30,000 prisoners at Dachau, a Nazi concentration camp. And yes, before it was all over, Galván did get to dance a waltz in Vienna.
Even overseas, Galván continued to play with the U.S. Army Band, but his repertoire now consisted of military marches, Christmas carols plus good ole American music for war orphans to enjoy. Then, as his military stint came to an end, his father made it known that he wanted Ralph back home; and age did not make any difference to him because his word was the law.
“I was discharged during March of 1946, came back and started playing as a sideman with Hank Henry, Óscar Ramos and Jake Stephens.”
Eventually a pay cut by Stephens made Ralph and Eddie rebel and quit. Then, as reluctant as they were, they told their father, who surprisingly supported their decision. He knew the day would come when they had to form their own orchestra. To help them and to keep his son’s together, he bought them everything they needed from sheet music to music stands and other related items.
The fifteen piece Ralph Galván y Su Orquesta, the largest in the bay area made their debut at the Corpus Christi Civic Center on January 27, 1947. However, this didn’t stop Ralph from furthering his education as he continued to study music.
“I always told myself that I wanted to marry a blonde with brown eyes and there she was, sitting two rows in front of me in Del Mar College. She had been playing with the Houston Symphony since she was 14 and had moved to play with the Corpus Christi Symphony,” Galván said as his bluish eyes seemed to dance with joy at the recollection.
On July 11, 1948, he and Edythe Jeanne Stowers exchanged marriage vows at Sacred Heart Catholic where his entire band members served as groomsmen. This union produced two children, Ralph III and Edythe Virginia.
Before their first anniversary, Ralph and his orchestra recorded their first 78 rpm vinyl record, “Los Tres Pelonas” featuring “Amor Y Mysterio” on the flipside. Later, when they Americanized their name, they recorded “With A Song In My Heart” with “Avalon” on the B side on the Melhart label.
A year later, their Ralph Sr., who now owned rental properties, a store, restaurant, a drug store and a movie theater, decided to build a permanent venue for his musical offspring. By now, the popular orchestra had performed in Brownsville, McAllen, Laredo, Houston and Dallas; therefore the ballroom would keep them home and close their families.
The Galván Ballroom was built from the ground up and it was “a dream come true” when it opened on March 2, 1950. The official grand opening, featuring the nationally known Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, was held twenty-six days later and hundreds of people had to be turned away.
Aside from the fact that it was the classiest venue in Corpus Christi, it was owned and operated by Mexican Americans and there was no segregation since Americans of Mexican descent and Anglo Saxon couples danced side by side. In addition, the Galván brother shared their love of African American-influenced culture and Big Apple-nightlife to their hometown at a difficult and tumultuous time when racism and discrimination was widespread throughout this nation. However, racial attitudes did not change overnight and it took time for Anglos to accept jazz, boogie woogie and hard as it may seem to believe, even rock and roll.
Ralph Sr. led by example and he wasn’t afraid to go against the tide when he hired Edward “Duke” Ellington. But regardless of culture, the premiere dancehall brought everyone together and this was proven with the Duke’s sold out performance to a mixed audience on February 13, 1952. The only sag is that segregation rules still applied and Blacks were not able to attend the Duke’s performance.
That’s veering off the subject of this article, who we now know why only Corpus Christians were privy to his immense talent for although his orchestra featured two vocalists, Buddy Blair and Wanda Gregory, Ralph, besides wowing audiences with his trumpet solos of “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” and other hits, he would also step up to the microphone to sing “Hey Bubbarina,” “Charlie Brown” and other novelty tunes.
Those were the golden days when women would wear hats, gloves and evening wear to his weekly Sunday dances.
Three little known facts are that Ralph once took music lessons from Henry Cuesta’s father. Cuesta, as some may recall, played clarinet on the “Lawrence Welk Show.” The other fact is that Freddie Martínez, who would sit in as a substitute with the orchestra from 1956 to 1957, was his nephew since Freddie’s mother, Rosa (who married Lee Sr.), is Ralph’s sister. A year later, in 1958, Freddie formed his own orchestra.
May 9, 1968 marked the turning point in Ralph’s musical career when his son, Ralph III, drowned while trying to save a 14-year-old girl. He was later awarded the Carnegie Medal of Honor for heroism, but Ralph was so broken-hearted, he could not continue and placed his trumpet in his son’s casket. Eddie temporarily took over Ralph’s orchestra hoping his brother would change his mind, but he never did and it became the Eddie Galván Orchestra.
A recent discovery is that the paternal grandmother of Mark Ballas — a professional dancer of Mexican, Spanish and Greek descent who is seen each week on “Dancing With the Stars” – used to be a featured dancer with the Ralph Galván Orchestra. Her name was María Luisa Marulanda. In 952, she married George C. Ballas Sr. in Laredo and then moved to Houston.
Many musicians in the orchestra went on to become high school band directors or excelled in public service and other professional areas.
As for the Galván brothers, Sam and Eddie passed on and his baby brother plus former clarinet and saxophone player, Bobby, now 82, manages Galván Music, the store he and Eddie founded on the first floor of the ballroom at the corner of Agnes and 14th streets.
Last year, Hoeltzel brought her mother to San Antonio to undergo intensive physical therapy and Ralph would spend every other week in the Alamo City until he moved here in June. Shortly thereafter, Ralph lost the love of his life.
Today his heart is working at 20 percent of its capacity and he is receiving special medical attention. However, he has not lost his zest for life. His eyes twinkle and his smile lights up any room, thus the windows to his soul indicate he is happy and at peace with the world.
In closing, as has been the on-going case for many of our musical pioneer trail blazers, Ralph had yet to be recognized or inducted into any hall of fame. Yet thirty-something and forty-plus year old Tejano performers are called legends and continue to reap many awards and although they are forty and fifty years younger than genuine music pioneers, they are being inducted into institutions such as the Tejano Roots Hall of Fame.
When it comes to having music roots, one needs to look at true living legends, such as Ralph, Jesse Alemán, 91-year-old Lorenzo Caballero plus several others while they can still smell the roses, enough said.